6 Ways to Solve Difficult Problems

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Lately, I have been talking a lot about how to be creative on demand. I have shared my learning and insights with my colleagues, students, startups, leaders and creative professionals. This is one of the most fundamental abilities that we need to master if we want to do really well in our professional and sometimes personal lives. You can watch the recording of one of these sessions here.

I have also shared my perspectives on “Where creative ideas come from” in earlier blog posts as well. So, the question then is why another blog post about the same topic?

That’s the thing, it is not the same topic. The earlier topic around where ideas come from, I talk about the where ideas come from. This post is going to be about the different ways for us to access those three ways we can access these ideas and solve difficult problems that we face in our every day life.

So, here we go.

Intuition:

This is the way to access these ideas if we are looking to go deeper into what we already know really well. Intuition develops when we have experienced something a lot of times. For example, a chess grand master can look at a chess board and can make moves based on his intuition. A husband or wife can guage the mood of their spouse by just hearing a word on a phone call. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman defines intuition as “intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do.”

He also talks about the existence of 3 conditions that can help us trust our intuition.

  1. There has to be some regularity in the world that someone can pick up and learn.
  2. You have had a lot of practice in this field of work and have developed expertise.
  3. The presence of immediate feedback loop. We need to know immediately if we got it right or not.

An example for this is the invention of telephone. You can watch Thomas Watson talk about the invention of telephone by Alexander Graham Bell here. This is a classic case of an expert using his intuition to come up with the idea of a ground breaking innovation. Tom Watson used to work with Alexander Graham Bell during this time.

Imagination:

In my opinion, this is the most commonly used mode for accessing breakthrough ideas. Imaginations are not limited by the laws of physics or reality. As humans, we are already predisposed towards running our imaginations wild, right from our childhood. This is a mechanism using which we learn about things, without actually having to experience them. This can be a life saver in a lot of cases and stressor in a lot of other situations.

A good example for such an idea is the origin of cruise ships. Shipping magnate Albert Ballin had a vision. He saw a future of leisurely sea travel available to anyone willing to pay the price of a ticket. The late-19th century director of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG), or Hamburg-America Line, knew the future of the company rested beyond shipping cargo across the Atlantic.

We need to remember that the reality in that era was that travel by sea was neither safe, nor comfortable. People did not travel by sea on ships for leisure. By creating the first comfort cruise ship, Prinzessin Victoria Luise, Ballin created an entire industry that is still active and booming. You can read more about this on the Smithsonian Magazine post here.

Inspiration:

This is the mode of breakthrough ideas when a prepped mind finds itself in a fertile ground that allows it to explore and be inspired. This is the quintessential “Eureka” moment, when something you struggle with suddenly makes sense.

This is how Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy. He was thinking deeply about a significant problem that he was to solve and arrived at the answer to the problem while being in a bath tub and came up with his idea which is still in use in the modern world.

You can watch the story here.

Intention:

This is the way people who are passionate about solving a given problem take. This mode of problem solving does benefit from all the other modes of coming up with ideas. However, in many of these cases, you will find that the people who are using this as a mode to solve problems, usually experiment and iterate their ideas multiple times, sometimes even thousands of times.

Typical example of this kind of determination and single pointed focus on solving a given problem is the invention of the electric bulb by Thomas Edison. Another example is how James Dyson created his highly successful vacuum cleaner. It is well known that he iterated and created 5126 prototypes before getting his product working, all the while struggling financially. It was his strong, single minded intention to make a better vacuum cleaner that kept him going.

You can watch the story of Dyson and his creation of the vacuum cleaner here.

You can also listen to Sir James Dyson talk about his journey on Tim Ferriss’s podcast here.

Interaction:

This mode of coming up with creative solutions to solve difficult problems has become prominent in the past few centuries. In fact, the entire European intellectual enlightenment started with the advent of coffee houses and the ability for people to meet and engage in dialogues and debates and create active collaboration.

The entire scientific process depends on these interactions and one person building on the ideas of someone else. Almost all kinds of entertainment that we experience today is dependent on a significant amount of interaction between a set of immensely creative people coming together.

The creation of the atomic bomb is a testament to what is possible when you bring smart, intelligent and committed people work together, with a single minded focus on building an atomic bomb before the Germans to end the world war. So, is the entire space program.

Similarly stunning amount of creative solutions came out of the famous building 20 at MIT, the most famous of them being RADAR. You can find more information about the impact that the interactions at Building 20 had on so many brilliant people and their impact on the world here.

Imitation:

This is a way to come up with ideas to solve difficult problems by imitating a solution that is already prevalent elsewhere in another part of the world, sometimes imitating nature (Biomimicry) and sometimes from some other industry or field of work.

This mode depends on our ability to observe what is happening around us. This taps into our inherent curiosity to explore and understand. There are many inventions that could be directly traced back to imitating mother nature or taking something that is taken for granted in one part of the world and incorporate it in another part of the world that is completely unaware of the same.

A very simple, yet powerful example of this is the addition of wheels to a suitcase by Bernard Sadow and made popular by Bob Plath, an airline pilot. I tell the story of this invention on my earlier post here. You can watch the history of luggage here, which also covers the origin of the luggage on wheels.

Did you know that we put a man on moon before we put wheels on luggage?

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I will only say that as leaders it is imperative that we understand all these different modes of solving difficult problems. Understand not just what these modes are but also when to engage in which mode, who on our team are more susceptible to certain modes and how diverse our teams are when it comes to these modes, what I call “Mode Diversity”.

We need to lead our teams in ways that is both intentional about the mode we are using and also the interplay between these modes and the agility to switch between the modes, when needed. This is what leadership is all about, when it comes to solving difficult problems.

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